Engineers of the Week No.48: The Weinling Women
Anne, Matilda, Elizabeth and Eugenie Weinling – the first women at the Royal Balloon Factory
In the 19th century it became apparent to the authorities that there were military applications for the use of hot air balloons, especially for spying and reconnaissance.The Army School of Ballooning, first established 1878/9, by 1905 had become a balloon factory on the site that would become the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough.
If it took ‘guts’ to go up in the first military hydrogen-filled balloons, it took many actual guts to even make the balloons - ox guts. When balloonists started to use hydrogen gas as the lifting agent, instead of heated air, they sought a material that would be impermeable to the hydrogen’s tiny molecules. No such a fabric became available until the 1920s.In the meantime the solution was a product known as ‘Goldbeaters’ Skin’. Although this was, as the name shows, a long-known product, its use for hydrogen balloons was a secret known only by the people who made the balloons for Mr Herron, the Weinling family.
Goldbeaters’ Skin is made from the outer layer of the bovine caecum, also called the blind gut or appendix. After preparation it resembles thin parchment, but when damp it sticks to itself easily to make larger pieces without glue or stitching. Airship gasbags usually consisted of up to seven layers of skin, needing vast quantities of the guts, most being imported in barrels from the USA. The largest airships came to require a quarter to half a million pieces.
When the family first began work at the Royal Balloon Factory, it was an era when everyone expected the head of a household to be a man and there were clearly gendered lines of whether an occupation was for men or women. Fortunately for the Weinling women, the craft of processing Goldbeaters Skin was not controlled by any guild or trades group and women had probably always done at least part of the process. Frederick Weinling seniordied in 1874so that Ann was head of the household and leading her daughters, Matilda, Elizabeth and Eugenie in the business. In 1906 Eugenie has risen to become forewoman of the balloon making workshop at the Royal factory.
During the Boer War, the gas envelopes of goldbeaters’ skin were made in significant quantities for reconnaissance balloons,in 1901, the 4th Balloon section alone required £2000 spent on making or repairing some 14 medium to very large balloons and over 100 small ‘pilot’ balloons. The Weinlings were said to guard their ‘secret’ jealously but it is clear that the family must by now have been assisted by other workers, almost certainly local working class women, as well as having to train up soldiers infield repairs.
During the First World War, with airships demanding even vaster numbers of skins made up into gas envelopes, the Weinling women were supervising significant numbers of women and there were women working at commercial airship builders. None of these women, the Weinlings or those they supervised, would probably have considered themselves to be engineers and they certainly had no formal education or training in anything that might be so recognised at the time. And yet today we certainly considerto be engineers or technologists the men and women who work with today’s advanced textiles and other ‘soft’ materials, for instance the highly skilled needleworkers making NASA space suits and heatshield blankets. In the very early days, NASA even employed seamstresses to ‘sew’ fine wires for a system of hardware-based programming, now more familiar as software.
The Weinlings continued their service until about 1922 when new fabrics became technically feasible for containing the hydrogen gas, but these women had been the very first civilian workers as well as the first women to do technical work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment.